May 29, 2007

Literature and/as Faith

Excerpts from my recent reading in James Wood's The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief and Christopher Hitchens's god is Not Great:
Nervously aware that they have killed off Christianity as a faith, [Arnold and Renan] must reinstate it as a religion, as a guide to life, as a poetry ... the poeticizing of nondivine religion was a characteristically nineteenth-century gesture. (Wood 246)
We [atheists] are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. (Hitchens 5)
The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. (Hitchens 283)
The Hitchens comments would make provocative epigraphs for a seminar on literature and morality; Wood points to the genealogy of claims such as Hitchens's.

May 24, 2007

The Occasion for Blogging

There has been a lot of public discussion recently about blogs in the context of the decline of book sections and book reviews in newspapers; much of it has consisted of attacks on literary blogs from more traditional writers and sources and defensive responses from bloggers (see, for instance, this response on The Reading Experience to an LA Times column that promised contemptuously to write "in language even a busy blogger can understand"). I have sympathies on both sides of this fence, as I agree that while anyone can write a book review or literary commentary, not anyone can write one that has interest and merit. In general, my position is simply the more people out there reading books and writing about them, the better all round. The more specific issue I've been wondering about is whether blogging is really only suited to be a form of literary journalism, focused on new releases and current authors in the way that book reviews are, or whether it is possible or useful for blogs also to write more in the spirit of literary scholarship or criticism of past literature. I'm also thinking more about the nature of literary blogs more generally, while well aware that so far I have still become aware of only a fraction of the options and styles out there.

One typical feature of successful blogging is apparently that it is incessant: unless they are constantly updated, it seems blogs lose their currency, their momentum and, presumably, their readers. I have already found that, at least for someone with other work to do, the rapidity of thinking and writing required to put up new posts even once or twice a week makes drafting and polishing impossible, which inevitably affects the kind and quality of writing you can do. This situation would differ, of course, for someone working full-time on a blog. It could also be overcome, or ameliorated, by writing off-line and not posting anything until it has been tidied up, though this too assumes that blogging is not a sideline to a "real" job. It may be as well that depending on the kind of site and voice you are trying to establish, you can take your time and post longer, more thoughtful pieces. It's not as if there are deadlines, after all, and besides, who's really reading most blogs all that frequently anyway, much less one like mine that hardly anyone even knows about? I started quite deliberately writing without a lot of second thoughts, to free myself up from academic hyper-self-consciousness, but all those first impressions are starting to seem inadequate, especially when the book at issue (The Map of Love, for instance) is quite complex, formally and thematically. I'm reaching a point at which I need to consider what I hope to accomplish by writing my posts in the first place and maybe experiment with some more in-depth analyses. But to do that, I would have to take the time and justify it professionally.

Another notable feature of the blogs I am most familiar with so far is their focus on fairly new releases and on the state of the current book and literary worlds. A next step for me will be looking around for people who write about the literature of the past. Literary journalism differs from literary criticism, it is usually assumed, in being prompted by an occasion needing a fairly prompt response to give it relevance. Criticism takes more of a long view. But without that occasion, that immediacy, what appeal does criticism have for the non-academic reader, especially in a medium like the internet? Is there an audience online for writing about Dickens or George Eliot? And what could be said that would matter, or appeal? The kind of stuff that gets written for academic audiences apparently (unsurprisingly) alienates almost everyone else, while the kind of stuff that gets written for popular audiences often seems trivial or redundant to those who read the academic stuff. And yet...books such as John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel or Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer do get published, so there is presumably some interest out there in enhancing one's experience of reading "the classics." One approach might be to look for the contemporary relevance in past authors, as I attempted to do with my paper on George Eliot as "Moralist for the 21st Century." But that means only highlighting authors and texts that lend themselves to modern purposes, which gets pretty tendentious and unsatisfactory pretty fast.

A number of my posts have been in the spirit of "work in progress" notes, thinking aloud though (maybe oddly) in public--partly in the hopes, of course, of eventually getting some input (a fading hope). At this point, especially with my sabbatical coming to an end, I need to start putting my thoughts together about what I've been learning by reading and (in this modest way) writing outside the academic box.

May 23, 2007

Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

For about the first half of this novel, I was tremendously impressed and moved by it. Whatever it takes to communicate what feels like an authentic, rather than contrived, sense of history (see previous posts on historical fiction), Soueif has; she makes both Lady Anna's past experience and the experience and perspective of Isabel and Amal in the (more or less) present seem alive, real. Isabel's exploration, while running a nice parallel to Anna's, turns out to be less important than Amal's; while Isabel is in her own way experiencing the exotic world of others, Amal is taking another look at her own world, in the illumination provided by her experience of Westerners, from her husband to Isabel and Anna. Soueif seemed especially good, to me, at showing the complexities of identity, the impossibility of pointing in any one direction and saying, "look, there, that is (or he or she is) truly Egyptian." But at the same time I felt the novel yearned for an idea of Eygpt, an idea of an Egyptian identity, that could endure the cataclysms as well as the slower erosions of history, cross-cultural conflict and change, and just time. Like Scott, Soueif avoids nostalgia, but in her landscapes especially there was a hint of something like it.

The two historical stories are interwoven artfully in ways that keep the reader thinking about relationships and continuities. Is Isabel looking for the same thing that Anna is? Anna looks for something like redemption, for her nation's sins including those committed, however unhappily, by her first husband; she looks for freedom from rules about who she can be; she looks (of course, this being a novel) for love. Isabel starts with love, with Omar, but how are we to read her being struck so fast with feeling for him? She goes to Egypt in part to understand "where he's coming from," as the saying goes, but in this case, literally, as if knowing his homeland will tell her his character--which, it seems, it does, because his sympathies and loyalties, his politics, are the result of his history and the history of the Middle East. One of Soueif's goals is clearly to educate her Western readers about international politics from a non-Western point of view, especially about the effects of colonialism in the early story, and the conflict over Palestine in the contemporary one. In the way novelists are often credited with, she puts human faces on what too easily become abstractions, such as redrawn borders. She also to some extent allows for the humanity on more than one side of controversies, showing up the inadequacy of single-minded advocacy on any one side.

By the end of the novel, though, I didn't think she was able to sustain the weight of the political and historical detail she included: the story began to suffer as conversations or descriptions of gatherings required long lists of names and allegiances, factions and parties (always unnatural, as in ordinary conversation we don't have to explain who everyone is). Sections seemed more like textbooks, and the momentum of the plot suffered. I also thought she did not use Anna well enough. Here she gave us an Englishwoman unconventional enough to ride across the Sinai dressed as an Arab man, whose very feistiness is part of what draws Sharif to her. But once she's married, she accepts entirely the life of an Egyptian wife, including a degree of segregation and dependence that would surely have galled even a more conservative Englishwoman of the early 1900s. Her one 'rebellion' is by mistake, when she withdraws her own money from the bank only to learn she has thereby shamed Sharif by implying he does not provide for her. Rather than resisting this implication as a misrepresentation of the facts, she apologizes abjectly. How much more interesting if she had continued to defy expectations and tested the compatibility of her "English" values with the tolerance of her new Egyptian family, especially as the intolerance of the English community for her is shown to be complete. Would her new kin have loved her so easily if she had not adopted their values and customs? It's true that Soueif is at pains to depict life in the haramlek as having its own kind of freedom, dignity, and beauty, and that Anna and Sharif become collaborators in the reports they send back to England. But Anna's rapid embrace of all things Egyptian seemed like a lost opportunity to me, and her story became fairly boring, until the melodrama of Sharif's violent death (leaving the killer's identity ambiguous was a nice touch that allowed, again, for the multiple complexities of politics and allegiances). Amal's struggle to negotiate the violent realities of contemporary Egypt held more dramatic interest and was movingly rendered. What are we to assume has happened to Omar at the end?

May 18, 2007

James Wood, Selected Criticism

Some years ago philosopher Martha Nussbaum lamented the state of contemporary literary (academic) criticism, observing that it does not communicate "the sense that we are social beings puzzling out, in times of great moral difficulty, what might be, for us, the best way to live." She hungers for "writing about literature that talks of human lives and choices as if they matter to us all." (Both quotations are from her essay "Perceptive Equlibrium: Literary Theory and Ethical Theory," included in Love's Knowledge.) A similar dissatisfaction with the nature of academic criticism motivates my own current efforts to find other ways and other examples of writing about literature. In the essays and reviews I have just read by James Wood, I have found what I was looking for. Wood draws on a rich knowledge of literary traditions and is not afraid to be erudite, or to use technical vocabulary to explicate literary styles and devices; anyone who can (so aptly, too) describe Isabel Archer and Fanny Price as "highly literate hermeneuts of the material that we, too, are reading" (in his essay "The Unwinding Stair") is not writing "Lit Lite" or "Classics for Dummies." But--or do I mean "And"?--he combines this kind of unabashedly intellectual analysis with reflections at once personal and philosophical, dispassionate and fully engaged with the conversations the books seem to him to get started. Though I have gathered up some examples of Wood's comments on literary criticism and theory more generally, I am most interested in how he deals with specific examples, and of these, I was most impressed with his reviews of McEwan's Saturday and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I thought these would make good test cases, as I have read the novels recently and thought about them a fair amount.

I'll give just a one long example, from the conclusion of his Ishiguro review. After a thoughtful discussion of the novel's story, its narration, and Ishiguro's "studied husbanding of affect" in this chillingly quiet account of clones raised, we gradually realize, to serve as organ donors for "normals," Wood asks, "what if we are more like Tommy and Kathy than we at first imagined?"
Everything they do is dipped in futility, because the great pool of death awaits them. They possess individuality, and seem to enjoy it (they fall in love, they have sex, they read George Eliot), but that individuality is a mirage, a parody of liberty. Their lives have been written in advance ... Their freedom is a tiny hemmed thing, their lives a vast stitch-up.
We begin the novel horrified by their difference from us and end it thoughtful about their similarity to us. After all, heredity writes a great deal of our destiny for us; and death soon enough makes us orphans. ... To be assured of death at twenty-five or so, as [these cloned] children are, seems to rob life of all its savor and purpose. But why do we persist in the idea that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose?
And from that he can return to Kafka, and Beckett, and Hardy ("When Dead": "This fleeting life-brief blight / Will have gone past / When I resume my old and right / Place in the Vast"). From the uncanny ordinariness of the narrator's voice, so seemingly unsuited to the extraordinary nature of her story, Ishiguro and Wood together make us look again at the whole idea of the ordinary, and in particular the most certain, "normal" thing of all, death. While the experience and the focus is explicitly textual, the meaning is intensely human. Something very similar happens in the end of Wood's review of Saturday: "At the last, the novel's literalist hero delicately gathers his very literal Saturday, and makes it metaphorical, emblematic; all our Saturdays will become Sundays, as all our yesterdays have lit the way to dusty death."

But what is Wood's contribution here? Why is anything further than Ishiguro's original telling (as Wood says, "curious, surprisingly suggestive and tender") necessary? Wood and Ishiguro meditate on the purpose of life, but what, on this example, is the purpose of criticism? (As my students sometimes ask, rather querulously, "if that's what the author meant, why didn't he just say so?") One thing I think Wood does is model a thoughtful, sensitive, well-informed reading, in the spirit of "did you notice this? what about this?" He also takes Ishiguro's offering and gives it a different kind of life: the conversation is not over when the book ends, and Ishiguro's is not the final word. Now we see something that Ishiguro has shown us, or as he has perceived it, and we can talk about it too. Ishiguro has described the novelist's work as a way of saying "It's like this, isn't it? Don't you see it this way too?" (I'm paraphrasing)--and so when he's done talking, we see what we think, or say something back. But Wood is also interested in the novel as an art form, in how and why specific kinds of narration, for instance, create certain effects, or generate (or control) affect and emotion. The trained eye sees better, understands the alternatives better. In the mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon," there's a wonderful episode in which a geologist is assigned to train the astronauts to collect rock samples from the moon. The crucial step is getting them to see, not just undifferentiated rocks, but specific kinds of rocks that tell their own stories and accrue meaning and significance through their shapes, composition, and location. Critics (any experts, really) help less experienced readers in the same way, telling them some of the things they can look for and why they might be interesting. They train you in appreciation and make you excited about the aesthetic and intellectual experience of reading attentively.

In an earlier post I quoted Denis Donoghue remarking that contemporary critics do not allow writers their own themes. Clearly, Wood takes a different approach. One way I might describe it is that he is thinking through the literature he is reading--not against it. One effect is that his own writing comes to sound like those he writes about (as in the example above from his Saturday review, which in turns has--fittingly and I'm sure deliberately--the beautiful cadences of the ending of Joyce's "The Dead"). It is a sympathetic, rather than symptomatic, reading, though this is not to say there is no room for criticism in the narrower sense of disagreement or evaluation. For instance, he thinks parts of Never Let Me Go lapse "from picture to diagram" (as GE put it).

I'm interested to see what a bad review from him looks like [update: I've seen one now, with his review of Updike's Terrorist--ouch], and I'm also very interested in reading more of his comments on the relationship between his work and that of academic critics.

May 17, 2007

The Company We Keep as Readers

Following through on the thread I outlined in my last post, I have been reading Jonathan Franzen's very interesting and thought-provoking 1996 Harper's essay. I actually feel that in some ways this piece (and the Marcus and Ozick that follow) are having a conversation that's not really for me, mostly because they are novelists, for one thing, and focusing on very contemporary texts and contexts about which, except as an ordinary citizen, I have no expertise and no vantage point from which I am comfortable making pronouncements. What I'm getting a better sense of, though, is how literature matters and how it is discussed outside the academic contexts these writers are so uniformly dismissive of. (Taking his turn at bat, Franzen, recalling his experience teaching creative writing, reports that some of his best students, "repelled by the violence done to their personal experience of reading, had vowed never to take a literature class again"--as far as I can tell, he is depressed, not by their solipsistic retreat in defense of their "personal experience," but by their having had to suffer such "violence." "Come to my classes," I am tempted to protest, and yet how can I be sure that my own efforts will not also offend against this amorphous personal standard? Other students make fun of the "patently awful utopian-feminist novel they were being forced to read for an honors seminar in Women and Fiction," but isn't there value in testing your ideas of what counts as "patently awful," even if in the end you don't change your mind? Isn't one reason to go to literature classes that you will read and learn about books beyond those that conform to your personal prejudices, including aesthetic ones? If they were being forced, not only to read it, but also to applaud it, that's a somewhat different problem, of course.)

I'm still thinking and learning about the larger issues at stake in all of these pieces. For now, I ll note that I found his report of the findings of linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath on "serious readers" fascinating. In particular, she talks (by his report) about the way in which books provide a community for their readers, especially for those who being their lives as "social isolates"--willing but not entirely able to share your perceptions and experiences and interests with those around you. What do the readers she studied find in, or feel they gain from, their books? Substance, she says: "Reading enables me to maintain a sense of something substantive--my ethical integrity, my intellectual integrity... Reading that book gives me substance." And their reading provides "a sense of having company in this great human enterprise, in the continuity, in the persistence, of the great conflicts." This is something like what moral philosophers like Martha Nussbaum theorize reading complex fiction does for us, so it is interesting to find readers recognizing it for themselves.

I'm not sure how any of this material helps me see why anyone would read literary criticism, academic or otherwise, or how the kind of expertise someone like me possesses might be put in the service of these serious readers. To hear these non-academic writers talk, you'd think nobody wants academics at all...

May 16, 2007

Academic Criticism Criticized (and Defended)

Recently, Daniel Green wrote a response on his blog to a piece by Cynthia Ozick in the April 2007 issue of Harper's. The Ozick essay, called "Literary Entrails," is itself a follow-up to two earlier discussions of the fate of the novel in the modern era: one by Jonathan Franzen (Harper's, April 1996) and a reply to Franzen by Ben Marcus (Harper's, this time in October 2005). So far I've read the Ozick and rounded up the Franzen piece, to be read soon. I've also been prompted, mostly by things Ozick says about him, to look up the work of James Wood, about which I expect I will be posting soon.

My main interest in this thread is that both Green and Ozick are roundly dismissive of academic criticism (as distinguished from literary criticism or reviewing). As noted in previous posts, I'm rounding up discussions and evaluations of these different modes of writing about literature. Also as noted in previous posts, despite my own dissatisfaction with much academic criticism, I bristle (and also wonder) at the harsh tone taken towards literary academics. Here's Ozick, after a paragraph on book clubs (she finds them sort of sweet, it seems, innocent amateurs) and then one on Amazon's anyone-can-do-it method of customer reviews ("a fetid sea, where both praise and blame are leveled by tsunamis of incapacity"):

(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)
Green considers this desciption "accurate" and hopes her prediction (of our immanent dissipation) will be fulfilled.

There are many different possible responses to such sweeping polemical condemnations, as well as to the many other arguments and observations made in both essays. My own recent article in English Studies in Canada makes some related points, too--and also works a little with a fog metaphor. For now, though, I want to point out a contribution that at least some of the "dons and doctors" make to a project Ozick and Green support: the development of a thoughtful reading audience for literature, of readers (not just critics or reviewers) capable of engaging with literature responsibly and substantially, at the level of form (what I take Green to mean, more or less, when he asks for more attention to "aesthetics") as well as theme and plot. Ozick in particular talks at length about the decline of readers--and she quotes a passage from a recent essay by Denis Donoghue that I think would ring true for most English professors, as it certainly did for me:

When I started teaching ... many years ago, I urged students to believe that the merit of reading a great poem, play, or novel consisted in the pleasure of gaining access to deeply imagined lives other than their own. Over the years, that opinion ... seems to have lost much of its persuasive force. Students seem to be convinced that their own lives are the primary and sufficient incentive. ... they want to talk either about themselves or about large-scale public themes, independent of the books they are supposedly reading.
Franzen, Ozick says, believes the new generation of students "will never evolve into discriminating readers." Yet, though teaching can include this kind of dispiriting encounter with "egotism and moralizing politicized self-righteousness," literature classes also provide a great opportunity to challenge these limitations, to bring students into contact with not just "deeply imagined lives" but crafted forms that can startle them into looking again, at themselves, at their world, at language. I too find much recent published criticism pretty unappealing, and many aspects of professional academic discourse alienating, for a range of reasons. But I don't think what goes on in my classroom, or in the classrooms of a great many "dons and doctors," deserves to be so sweepingly ignored or distorted. Here's a similar bit from the "statement of purpose" with which Green launched his blog: "the academy, once entrusted with the job of engaging with works of literature, has mostly abandoned it altogether in favor of 'cultural studies' and other forms of political posturing." Again, however accurate this may be as a description of academic criticism (and that's surely arguable), "the academy" (not, of course, monolithic in the way Green implies) does a lot of other things too, much of which involves exposing students to a variety of writers and styles, thinking about literary history and the history of genres, learning a vocabulary to talk about how writers get different kinds of things done and to what ends--aesthetically, ethically, and yes, also (but not exclusively) politically. One thing those of us in "the academy" do is send at least some of our students out into the "real" world excited and inquring and serious about literature, and equipped with some knowledge and some expertise as readers. I like to point out to my students that they will be assigned "required" reading for only a small fraction of their reading lives--after that, the choices will be theirs, the engagement and the satisfaction only as deep as they choose to make it. It's my goal to give them some tools and strategies to go deeper if they want to, as well as to broaden their textual horizons. Ozick (rightly, I think) laments that "Amazon encourages naive and unqualified expose their insipidities to a mass audience." You don't need an English degree to be insightful about books--but some education as a reader is surely one way to become the kind of reader novelists such as Ozick (or, for that matter, critics such as Green) hope to have.

May 9, 2007

Margaret Oliphant, Hester

I am grateful for having been pointed to Hester by the anonymous responses to my earlier posting on Miss Marjoribanks It's true: Hester is a better novel, in the depth and interest of its characterization, in the unity and momentum of its plot, and in its treatment of women's roles and options. Catherine and Hester are both impressive characters--Catherine perhaps more so, if only in her divergence from the usual run of female roles and the non-ironic presentation of her power and business competence (can we consider her a kind of rebuttal or alternative to Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice?).

As with Miss Marjoribanks (and most Trollope novels that I've read), Hester leaves me feeling that thematic or philosophical interpretations are somewhat beside the point. The editors of my Oxford edition remark that Oliphant is "closer to the mysterious ordinariness of Trollope" than to George Eliot, Dickens, or Gaskell, and their introductory essay emphasizes the commitment of her realism to the ultimate complexity, inexplicability, and inconclusiveness of life. Things happen in the novel, they argue, in a sort of messy way as they do in real life, with people operating on mixed and often inarticulate motives and events unfolding in ways that reveal the limits of individual control over contexts and circumstances. On their reading, the form (or formlessness) of her stories replicates these qualities of real life and thus they have been underappreciated (as, indeed, Oliphant herself predicted). In Hester, much more than in Miss Marjoribanks, the structure of the story actually seemed quite tight, but at the end I did still feel uncertain what it was all ultimately about, just as in Trollope novels you read along (and along, and along) and end up feeling you've followed people's lives from one point to another with many incidents and excursions along the way but without any guiding idea except that people's lives are interesting and we can (and should) take a sympathetic interest in their details. To carry off such fiction and make it compelling is certainly an accomplishment-- but is it a great artistic accomplishment?

I still have two days to decide for sure which Oliphant novel I will use in my "Victorian Women Writers" seminar. Miss Marjoribanks has many elements that present interesting comparisons to the other readings I've chosen, especially Middlemarch, as Lucilla (like Dorothea) has ambitions to do something that matters with her life and even ends up living out something like Dorothea's philanthropic fantasy. I don't see Hester complementing the other readings quite as clearly, but then it seems fair to have Oliphant represented by the best of her novels that I've read. And Hester herself stands up well to Jane Eyre, Margaret Hale, and Dorothea as a feisty heroine trying to figure out how to make a life for herself, defying expectations and facing moral crises along the way.

May 7, 2007

Philosophy and Literature; or, Proof that Everything Old is New Again...

...even in literary criticism. Reading unsuspectingly along in David Masson's 1859 British Novelists and Their Styles, I came across this interesting bit:
Before novels or poems can stand the inspection of that higher criticism which every literary work must be able to pass ere it can rank in the first class, their authors must be at least abreast of the best speculation of their time. Not that what we want from novelists and poets is further matter of speculation. What we want from them is matter of imagination; but the imagination of a well furnished mind is one thing, and that of a vacuum is another. [RM: hear hear!] ... That a writer may be fitted to frame imaginary histories illustrating the deeper problems of human education, and to be a sound casuist in the most difficult questions of human experience, it is necessary that he should bring to his task not only an average acquaintance with the body of good current doctrine, but also an original speculative faculty. In such cases, the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists.
This is the first such explicitly "interdisciplinary" assertion of this kind I have come across in the 19th-century material I've been reading around in, although of course George Eliot's ideas as well as her novels (most of them later than Masson's book) work out just such an integration of speculation and aesthetics.

Trying to imagine more precisely what Masson (or anyone) might mean by (or how he might justify) putting such demands on a novelist raises what has always been a niggling question for me when I consider the whole project of literary analysis or criticism--just who do we think novelists are that we care so much about what they say about all kinds of big important issues? We put a lot of weight--or pressure--on the novels we study when we inquire into problems such as "does Charlotte Bronte advocate women's rights in Jane Eyre at the expense of racial justice?" or "can a middle-class novelist like Elizabeth Gaskell depict working-class grievances without being patronising?" (to give hasty examples of fairly typical approaches in my own field these days). We seem to have high expectations that what Bronte or Gaskell says or does will be significant and thus is worth explicating, and that these explications or interpretations are worth arguing over (and over and over). Is the working assumption that theirs are the offerings of "well-furnished minds"? How can we tell? Is that part of what we're trying to find out when we study them? What if we end up thinking otherwise? Can aesthetic judgments survive such a discovery? (My preliminary answer accords with what I think Masson would say too, which is, sure they can, but we have to then consider the writer below the first rank--for me, this would be what happens with Hardy, say, whose philosophy I find confused, or at least confusing, but whose novels move and interest me very much.)

In any case, I find I am quite sympathetic to Masson's emphasis on intellectual requirements for novelistic value. Earlier in British Novelists he remarks,

the measure of the value of any work of fiction, ultimately and on the whole, is the worth of the speculation, the philosophy, on which it rests, and which has entered into the conception of it. . . . No artist, I believe, will, in the end, be found to be greater as an artist than he was as a thinker.
He goes on to explain that the resulting novel need not be explicitly philosophical or speculative, and that the philosophy may express itself indirectly "through the medium and in the language of his art" (as we would say, through its form, not necessarily through its content) and that the artist need not be self-consciously laying out a theory (as GE would say, all the better, in fact, if the novelist does not "lapse from the picture to the diagram"). But that thought, that ideas, (and not just feeling or sound or colour or other aspects) should be granted priority seems to me an admirable standard for deciding which novels really are the most valuable.

May 4, 2007

Francine Prose, A Changed Man

I picked this novel up partly because I've been reading Prose's Reading Like A Writer with some interest, partly because its premise sounded interesting and provocative ('reformed' neo-Nazi goes to work at human rights organization run by Holocaust survivor), and partly, I have to admit, because how could I resist a novel that takes one of its epigraphs from Middlemarch? After I finished it I felt that this last impulse was the one least fulfilled by my reading experience. Prose's style is engaging, as is her story, but I was propelled along more by curiosity about what might happen (by plot, in other words, and to a lesser extent by character) than by any sense of unfolding moral revelation or insight. Perhaps that is too much to expect of a comic or satirical novel--but once you've invoked Dorothea's belief that "by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are ... widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower" you've rather raised your reader's expectations about the aims and ideals of what is to follow. I wonder if choosing to approach her topics through comedy was a mistake on Prose's part. I have some sympathy with the Victorian reviewer who was uncomfortable with Thackeray's depiction of vice:

We don’t say that a vicious or even a degraded nature is not a fit subject for the artist,—no doubt it is [says W. C. Roscoe]; we do not say it is an unfit subject even for comedy; but we do say it ought not to be comically treated.

My reaction to Raymond in particular is about the same: his habits of mind just don't strike me as funny, and yet they are used to comic purposes and treated with unseemly (there's a good Victorian word) humour.

My main source of dissatisfaction with A Changed Man, though, had to do with the characterization of Vincent. I don't think Prose motivated his initial journey to Laslow's foundation adequately. Over the course of the novel we get many versions of the epiphany that supposedly turned him from a lukewarm neo-Nazi (already a difficult category to imagine) to an opportunistic and finally a sincere advocate for moral regeneration. Most of these versions, we learn, are not the whole truth. But the drug-induced euphoria that seems to be the real inspiration doesn't explain enough, and just what he thinks he is doing when he first enters Laslow's lobby is not well enough explained. In a way, it doesn't matter all that much because we simply need to accept the premise of the book (his break from his skinhead past) and then appreciate the effects of his presence and his new role as poster boy for Laslow's "One Heart at a Time" project on him and the other characters. But since I didn't believe in him very fully anyway, I didn't believe in his transformation. If he was so half-hearted anyway, too, where's the real drama of his seeing the error of his ways? Raymond has no parallel moral breakthrough; to give him one would have put too much pressure on the novel's serious elements, perhaps, and been too idealistic for a novel that emphasizes imperfection and 'grey areas,' but Vincent seems a little too easily and conveniently cured by the cognitive therapy strategies he has picked up in his anger management sessions. Is it unreasonable of me to think that given what we do know about his past, including his past moral and ideological commitments, it's facile to set him up, even from Bonnie's perspective, as a better father figure for Bonnie's kids than their mid-life crisis fool of a father? In the interview material at the end of my edition of the novel, Prose remarks that the book requires us to set aside our preconceptions about the characters (based, for instance, on their histories and primary identities, e.g. skinhead, Holocaust survivor) and concentrate on who they are specifically or individually. For this approach to work for me, though, I need a deeper, better contextualized and more serious accounting of who they are. (Compare what GE does with Bulstrode's culpability and efforts to become a new man, for instance, and if you think it's an unfair comparison, well, Prose is the one who invokes GE in the first place...)

Is it Vincent or Bonnie who represents Dorothea's philosophy? Both? Or is it the novel overall, in which the people are basically blundering around but trying, with mixed success and often against their own weaker and more selfish impulses, to figure out what the right thing is and do it? What's the point about Laslow? It's daring, in a snide sort of way, to show his faults and capacity for selfish and petty behaviour--fair enough, surviving the Holocaust does not guarantee that you will be a saint or a moral giant. The "telescopic philanthropy" thread was clever, too, though the human rights work Laslow's foundation does is hardly comparable to the absurd efforts of Mrs Jellyby. Bonnie's well-drawn, as are her sons, but to what thematic purpose?

I think my overall reaction is that Prose had an original conception that has great potential for developing the "widening the skirts of light" theme, but the satiric presentation or treatment of the material and the relative superficiality of both characterization and context mean the novel is lighter, more trivial, less interesting, than the issues involved deserve.

May 2, 2007

Back to Work

It's not because I haven't been reading that I haven't posted anything here in a couple of weeks: I've been on vacation in my real home town, beautiful Vancouver, and talking about books with real live people for a while--kind of a nice change, since (absent any comments on my posts) writing things up for this blog seems like speaking into a void, or just talking to myself. Anyway, I'll be putting up some thoughts soon on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I finished just before I left (good book!), Goodnight Nobody, which I bought to read on the plane (mildly entertaining), and A Changed Man, by Francine Prose, which I am still finishing up (interesting, a bit quirky). It was a treat and a terrible temptation to browse in the many wonderful bookstores in Vancouver, especially my traditional favourites, Duthie's and Hagar Books--and, of course, Vancouver Kidsbooks.